April of 2017 was a massive month for music, with some of the biggest players in their respective fields releasing new records, from the likes of hip hop powerhouses Kendrick Lamar and Joey Bada$$ to electronic bigwigs Arca and Actress. April also seemed to be the month of the comeback album, with artists ranging from Gorillaz to Ryuichi Sakamoto and from Feist to GAS stepping back into the limelight to offer up their newest contributions to the musical world. With such a fruitful month in question, it’s probably best to cut the preamble short and get straight into the albums released over the past 30 days that won me over and that I would recommend to any and all who are willing to listen.
‘In Extremis’ by Azarath
With their direct connections to Behemoth, it’s no surprise that Polish blackened death metal outfit, Azarath, would often be compared to their occult cousins, but that’s not to say that Azarath offer nothing that isn’t already offered by Behemoth. Of course, fans of the thelemic veterans are sure to appreciate Azarath for many similar reasons, but the group bring more to the table on their latest album, In Extremis, than a carbon copy of Behemoth’s blueprint, with even Inferno, who drums in both bands, being sure to switch up his unique style of punishing, off-kilter drum work throughout the tracklisting. Simply put, In Extremis offers some bare-faced and oppressive metal with no strings attached, and for that, many a metalhead shall rejoice in the band’s unapologetic, blackened glory.
‘Pure Comedy’ by Father John Misty
Father John Misty’s previous album, 2015’s I Love You, Honeybear, alluded to the overarching sociopolitical narrative that appears on Pure Comedy, but the sheer scope of the artist’s approach to this arc could not have been anticipated. On his latest album, Josh Tillman, the man behind the Father John Misty moniker, takes a step back from the minute details of political discussion to grasp the breadth of the bigger picture, only to find a tumultuous landscape of confusion, chaos and criminality, similar to that which is displayed on the album artwork. Not intimidated by the unfathomable mess of everything, Tillman endeavours to tackle the woes of the Western world, and no one is safe from his scrutiny. Across 74 minutes of dynamic, animated, show tune-esque ballads, the singer-songwriter engages with contemporary politics and the state of society as a whole through some of the most amusing, depressing, sardonic, meta and generally biting lyrical diatribes of any 2017 album thus far, rivalling the likes of Mark Kozelek with his verbose harangues about anything and everything. As its title would suggest, this album’s narrative is an epic tragicomedy of sorts, but, above all else, Pure Comedy stands as a monument to cynicism that is as laughable as it is miserable.
‘DAMN.’ by Kendrick Lamar
I honestly didn’t think Kendrick Lamar had it in him to record a casual album, but his latest record, DAMN., is that album. Well, sort of. The rich, luscious, vibrant jazz rap instrumentation of his previous albums, particularly good kid, m.A.A.d city and To Pimp A Butterfly, are substituted for some more wide-reaching and generally accessible arrangements, taking cues from trap, pop rap and contemporary R&B. In this sense, DAMN. is rather casual from a stylistic perspective, in that the music is somewhat all over the place. Lamar’s lyrics, too, are all over the place, but in a rather different fashion, and certainly couldn’t be described as ‘casual’. The rapper’s ideals and truths as displayed on this album may be inconsistent, contradictory and sometimes rather alarming, but, to an end, this almost seems to be the point. Unlike on his previous albums, across DAMN., Lamar seems genuinely conflicted about many of his most firmly held beliefs, particularly those pertaining to his Christian faith. As such, the artist comes across as vulnerable and in need of some help or moral guidance, and this is translated in the record’s rigid framework, in which Lamar is constantly constructing and deconstructing his perceptions of many things, including himself. As such, despite being what is easily his most dishevelled and discrepant album both musically and lyrically, the rapper’s introspections hold together tightly, as his philosophies crumble around him and he rummages through the ruins to find some semblance of hope or absolution.
‘Forever and Then Some’ by Lillie Mae
Under the productive direction of famed singer-songwriter, Jack White, Lillie Mae Rische, formerly the lead vocalist of sibling Americana group Jypsi and currently a touring member of White’s backing band, makes her explosive debut in the Nashville country scene with Forever and Then Some. With a palpable appreciation for Appalachian music that runs deep in her blood, the violinist brings to the table a fresh selection of country, Americana and bluegrass tunes, married with influences from across the popular music spectrum, including rock, pop, soul and rockabilly. With her backing band being comprised of many familiar faces for those who follow the new releases coming out of White’s Third Man Records label, plus Lillie Mae’s sister and fellow ex-Jypsi member, Scarlett, providing mandolin, the performances across Forever and Then Some are consistently packed with an energy and passion that will go over well with any who feel an affinity towards country music.
‘Mzansi Beat Code’ by Spoek Mathambo
The sound of South Africa seeps through every nook and cranny of Spoek Mathambo’s newest release, Mzansi Beat Code, dripping into a vast melting pot of styles from all across the globe. With the Johannesburg-originated house subgenre of kwaito providing the stylistic foundation on which the vast majority of these songs are built, Mathambo brings the house music of other cultures into the mix, as well as heavy influences from hip hop, electronica, funk, soul and countless other genres, perhaps more potently than ever before. Mathambo’s music has long since acted as a zeitgeist of sorts for South Africa’s vibrant music scenes, and Mzansi Beat Code is no exception, but it nevertheless expands the styles represented in its sounds far beyond the borders of the musician’s homeland, and stands as Mathambo’s most vibrant and vivid actualisation of his artistic vision to date.
‘Terra Damnata’ by Nightbringer
The tropes and clichés of certain genres can often be overused to the extent that even dear fans of said genre may grow tired of them and fall into somewhat of a rut. At this point, a breath of fresh air, in the form of a band that takes these standard stylistic conventions and applies them in a particularly enthralling way, is needed in order to rekindle this person’s initial passion for the genre. If any metalheads have found themselves disinterested in the black metal blueprint as of late, Nightbringer’s latest album, Terra Damnata, may just be their breath of fresh air. Although as orthodox as black metal comes from a stylistic perspective, Nightbringer maintain a definitive edge of eccentricity in their songwriting and asymmetry in their riffage that sets them apart from other outfits of the same ilk. With their riffs razor sharp and their three-way vocals exceptionally earsplitting, Nightbringer’s Terra Damnata has that healthy dose of quirkiness that makes it really stand out.
‘Guppy’ by Charly Bliss
Charly Bliss’ debut album, Guppy, sees the sardonic, self-deprecating, snide humour of frontwoman Eva Hendricks’ vignettes of reckless abandon set against the high-octane energy of the band’s brand of power pop. The resultant collision of bitter emotions and garage rock tunes as sweet as bubblegum is evocative of groups like Weezer, with the sense of teen angst and melancholy translated through Hendricks’ biting bars being as potent as the feelings of exuberance and excitement exuded by the infectiously animated instrumentals. Guppy seeks to appeal to the strongest of human emotions, on either end of the spectrum, and the result is a record that is undoubtedly both alive and kicking.
‘Infrared Horizon’ by Artificial Brain
On Infrared Horizon, Artificial Brain — based in New York, though likely from some distant galaxy — take their cosmic brand of technical death metal to another world than that which spawned their debut, Labyrinth Constellation. With the pervasive black metal influence on Infrared Horizon, it’s likely that this planet is constantly shrouded in the dark of night, whilst the muddy production value points to its landscapes being largely marshland. Regardless of the world they happened to be inhabiting at the time of its inception, Infrared Horizon sees Artificial Brain once again bring the labyrinthine song structures, mind-boggling intricacies and guttural riffage of their debut to the intergalactic stage for another thrilling trip around the Sun.
‘Love Is Love’ by Woods
Woods’ response to the election of President Donald Trump comes in the form of Love Is Love, an album that not only sees the Brooklyn-based band commit themselves to an overarching political narrative, but also take some unexpected but well-executed detours from their usual brand of lo-fi indie folk. Given the fact that the record’s lyrical statements are relatively meagre and only really scratch the surface of the convoluted issues surrounding last year’s presidential election, the grandest statements made on Love Is Love arise from Woods’ compositional approach. In honing in on their jam band roots, whilst incorporating influences from Latin styles of music, as well as genres such as jazz and funk, the folk troupe come through with an impressively diverse album that pulls from various styles and cultures, which arguably reflects the record’s overall message of equality and unity in a far more compelling fashion than any amount of biting lyricism could.
‘Narkopop’ by GAS
Having been occupied with his numerous other musical aliases for the past 17 years, the crowning achievement of Wolfgang Voigt under his GAS moniker, Pop, which is widely considered one of the greatest ambient albums of all time, had previously been presumed to be the sign-off statement from the project. Now, however, Voigt has rekindled the excitement surrounding GAS with Narkopop, a surprise follow-up to his magnum opus. As is implied by the album’s title, Narkopop is the nocturnal sister album to its precursor, bridging the sonic divide between Pop and earlier recordings in the GAS chronology, which were notorious for their marriage of dark, frightening, ambient soundscapes and washed-out, suppressed techno beats. Not only does Narkopop bring both of these worlds to life in a particularly mesmerising fashion, but it also incorporates some of the most adventurous ideas employed on a GAS album to date, occasionally straying from the sylvan themes of the project to evoke industrial imagery, all whilst rooting such explorations in cohesive musical motifs. As such, Narkopop is a well-detailed and admirably adventurous ambient release that stays true to the defining characteristics of GAS’s past material, whilst taking some audacious risks that highlight the importance of this record for the project’s legacy.
‘Prédateurs’ by Les Discrets
Having worked in close connection with pivotal French blackgaze outfits such as Alcest and Amesoeurs, singer and multi-instrumentalist, Fursy Teyssier, initially pursued a similar brand of post-black as the frontman of his own original project, Les Discrets. The outfit’s latest album, Prédateurs, however, sees the abandonment of practically any and all black metal influence, with only the dark and natural themes of the record’s lyrics and overall aesthetic bearing any similarities to the genre. Instead, Prédateurs sees Les Discrets incorporate a diverse range of influences, spanning across styles such as shoegazing, trip hop, electronica, instrumental hip hop, ambient and indie rock, whilst cherry-picking the darkest traits of such genres as to craft an eerily gloomy sound. With a lyrical narrative primarily focussed on the death of animals and the natural world at the hand of human brutishness, Prédateurs may share little to nothing in common with black metal, but it achieves a level of depressive darkness that matches, and arguably exceeds, that of many releases within the genre.
‘Sabiduría’ by Eddie Palmieri
Following 60 years in the music industry and 80 years on this planet, jazz pianist, Eddie Palmieri, has long since played a crucial role in expanding the reaches of Western jazz music to include influences from all manner of styles and cultures. Primarily appropriating tropes of Latin and Afro-Caribbean jazz and dance music into his compositional style, Palmieri continues to broaden his stylistic horizons on his latest album, Sabiduría, on which he employs the help of many a lauded collaborator, all of whom bring their own definitive approach to jazz music into the mix. The result is one of the most varied jazz releases of the year thus far, with practically every piece standing out in the tracklisting as being completely unique to those surrounding it.
‘With Primeval Force’ by Vampire
In the same way that Nightbringer follow many of black metal’s most elementary tropes to the letter and yet still maintain a unique edge to their sound, the same could be said of Vampire and death metal. In Vampire’s case, however, this quite clearly arises from the band’s reverence for acts from all over the metal spectrum, incorporating influences from thrash metal, classic heavy metal and even a slight hint of progressive rock and metal. What’s more, the Gothenburg-based outfit, rather fittingly, have cited the soundtrack to Konami’s 1987 NES platform-adventure classic, Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, as an inspiration for the music on their sophomore album, With Primeval Force. As crazy as that may sound, the same creepy vibe from the music that would accompany Simon Belmont as he faces Dracula in their epic, final showdown, in order to rid himself of the curse laid upon him at the conclusion of their last encounter, appears in Vampire’s brand of purely evil death metal, and the result is a particularly striking release from the band.
‘All This I Do For Glory’ by Colin Stetson
When bringing up avant-garde jazz, the first thing that will often come to someone’s mind is the wailing saxophones, unthinkable time signatures and improvised freak-outs, that test the patience of the listener as much as they do the technical stamina of the musicians, associated with the likes of John Coltrane, Sun Ra or Roland Kirk. Whilst such jazz veterans have unequivocally been pivotal to the development of the genre, there is more to avant-garde and free jazz than solely these takes on the style. The purpose of avant-garde jazz has often been to poke at the taboos of what is, traditionally speaking, a genre of music with a highly rigid form, with many budding musicians being expected to meet certain technical standards in order to make it as professional jazz players. In this regard, Colin Stetson is perhaps one of the most radical and revolutionary jazz musicians of our time, and his latest solo effort, All This I Do For Glory, furthers his growing legacy. Despite applying numerous techniques that require copious amounts of technical ability, including multiphonics, percussive valve-work, circular breathing and growling, Stetson also takes audacious risks in the form of, for instance, venting, which is when a reedist expels air from the sides of their mouth and their nostrils. This is perhaps the cardinal sin of a reed player, but on All This I Do For Glory, Stetson actually places microphones on either side of his face as to ensure that these breathy noises are picked up on tape, and this pays off, with the entire record retaining an ambient air to it that complements Stetson’s minimalist compositions perfectly. Ultimately, All This I Do For Glory sees the saxophonist continue his cause for a brand of jazz radicalism that makes him amongst the most enthralling musicians the genre currently has to offer.
‘async’ by Ryuichi Sakamoto
Having recently overcome cancer, Japanese multi-genre composer, Ryuichi Sakamoto, makes his solo come-back with async, one of the most compelling endeavours of his already fruitful career. async feels as much like a music album as it does a cinematic experience or an epic poem, which is apt, given the diverse influences from all different art forms that Sakamoto incorporates into his material. The musician’s marriage of fluttering synths, sombre church organs, dramatic spoken word excerpts and dainty electronics is applied in such a way as to reflect his recent experience confronting his own mortality, and the new-found perspective on the nature of life that he has gained as a result of this. If the mission statement of async is to translate these ruminative and introspective feelings of an oddly comforting insignificance in our vast universe to the listener, then this record is indeed perhaps Sakamoto’s crowning achievement.